Is frugality about saving money or making you feel less guilty?
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In the fascinating article, “The Green Bubble: Why environmentalism keeps imploding,” Nordhaus and Shellenberger cite this provocative study that has close parallels to frugality:
“It’s easy enough to point out the insignificance of planting a garden, buying fewer clothes, or using fluorescent bulbs…But the ecological irrelevance of these practices was beside the point. What downscalers offered was not a better way to reduce emissions, but rather, a way to reduce guilt. In 2007, we asked environmentalists in focus groups about green consumption. None thought that consuming green would do much of anything to address a huge challenge like global warming. They did it anyway, they said, because it made them feel better.”
What is the point of saving money on obsessing about small expenses like lattes? Is it to truly save money, or is it to reduce guilt?
I’m curious to hear what you think, although iwillteachyoutoberich readers are self-selected against small frugality.
I’ve always believed that you can’t out-frugal your way to rich. And it’s not just about the math ($3/day doesn’t really add up to that much). More importantly, it’s about the psychology of big wins: Most of us are never going to completely stop spending money on the things we love — especially daily things like our morning coffee — so exhortations to “just stop buying those lattes” are invariably meaningless. Plus, there’s the Paradox of Choice: The more things we worry about, the less we do of anything at all.
And then there’s guilt.
If there is one thing I hate, it’s behavioral change based on guilt. Yes, guilt can cause you to change your eating habits or spending, but the attitudinal and behavioral change is usually short-lived and ineffective.
In Guilt and Our Choices, I wrote:
In college, I never understood the jackasses who would say they had “tons of work to do” and that they “should work” and would go to the library for 13 hours, where they would chat on AIM, read maybe a total of 25 pages, and come back telling everyone they’d been at the library “all day” (wipe brow). This smacks of stupidity and when I saw this, I thanked god that he made me a tall but frail man, because if I were Mike-Tyson-sized, there would be some trouble for everybody.
I’ve found that guilt is a hugely insidious influence for people, especially people our age. We’re making decisions about classes, careers, money, and life because of guilt in a hugely disproportionate way. How many people do you know that major in econ because they’re guilty about their parents paying $160,000 for them to attend college? Or they go to law school? Or choose some particular job because they “should”?
How much of “saving” money is about guilt? Do we feel guilty about splurging for dessert or buying those jeans…but then do it any way? How many friends do we know who say, “Yeah, I really should save more money…”
I’m curious to hear what you think about guilt and spending. What do you do? What do your friends do?